/ Shopping

Which shops play the most annoying background music?

Fingers in ears

We’ve had lots of requests to cover annoying music in shops, from radio stations in supermarkets to pop hits in tech stores. So we want to know which shops and music irritates you the most.

A bunch of Which? members have been in in touch to tell us how annoying they find it when they’re forced to listen to music in shops.

I must admit, I only ever notice if it’s a song I particularly don’t like – or if it’s too early in November for me to be able to stomach festive pop.

I’ve got particularly fond memories of Gorillaz’s ‘Dare’ coming on in a clothes shop, and all the customers and staff spontaneously dancing along. But, for me, shop music is generally something that usually washes over me. Or does it?

How music in shops affects you

There have been numerous studies that have discovered that the volume, speed and type of music played does have an effect on a shopper’s behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, loud music makes people spend less time in a shop. If you’re in a supermarket, music doesn’t affect how much you buy, but it does mean you make your way through the store more quickly. This means that the supermarket can get customers in and out more quickly, freeing up space in the car park and at tills, without seeing a drop in profits.

Slower music is likely to result in shoppers spending more time in a store, and thus buying more. And classical music is more likely to make people spend more compared to pop.

But if a shop gets the type of music wrong (the latest pop hits for over-25s, or easy listening for under-25s) then customers reportedly think that they’ve spent more time in store than they actually have.

So, with all this research to hand, which shops are getting their music wrong and what is it that’s irritating their customers so much? Are there any particular shops that stand out for you for their poorly-chosen, too-loud music? Or are you a shop worker who’s being driven mad by the same songs being played on a loop?

And do you feel the same about music in restaurants and pubs?

Comments

No Wetherspoons pub ever has piped music. I don’t go in pubs myself much but I notice going by them – and hearing from other people – that Wetherspoons are extremely well patronised. A major point is that one is able to have a conversation with friends much more easily and enjoyably.

I’d like to think you are right, Raymond, but it might have something to do with cheap food and drink, including proper beer.

Recently I read a report about how Wetherspoons is bucking the trend. Whilst other businesses in the sector are closing down, Wetherspoons is actually opening up new outlets. Even if it is the cheap food and proper beer that are attracting people, surely what this shows is that background music isn’t necessary for a successful business and businesses are just wasting money paying for it?

Previous contributions have indicated that Tesco might be listening to us. To test that out I went into my local branch this morning, to find that the noise had been turned off; I wondered if that was due to the complaint I made via their feedback website (I forgot to give my contact details, unfortunately).

I had a pleasant chat with the manager and one of his staff but my hopes were dashed. He said that he would have to turn it back on soon because of the possibility of senior staff visiting, and they would not be pleased to find it switched off. There’s a fair way to go yet, sadly.

I know from speaking to the manager of a local pub owned by Mitchells & Butlers that he is very constrained in what he is allowed to do to keep his customers happy. I complained about the intense flashing lights in a fruit machine. Flashing lights within a certain frequency range give me an unpleasant headache within minutes. He said he could not turn the machine off because he would get into trouble with the company, but he said he would swap it the following day.

One thing that is still allowed is to adjust the volume of the music, which usually means turning it down or off when requested. I have been told that company policy is to provide music, but it’s rarely on by the time I have visited.

Ralph says:
22 December 2014

I once went into a pub after evensong in Oxford. With a couple of dozen people in there, they were playing loud music with a very heavy beat. I asked the man if he could turn it off. Affronted, he replied, “you’re not the only one in here you know”. Delighted, I replied, “So you mean, if a majority of people agreed that they would like the music to be turned off, you would turn it off?”. “Yes, but they won’t”, replied a surly barman. I turned to the pub, clapped my hands bossily, and took a vote. Unanimous. I turned to him with a smug smile. He turned it off.

Do you accept bookings? Is there a fee or do you offer this as a public service? 🙂

I love this! Well done.

Ralph says:
22 December 2014

Thank you, Richard. I charge per decibel reduced.

Nancy says:
28 December 2014

A most disappointing shopping experience with regards to background music in London has to be the Club Monaco boutique in Sloane Square. Being a loyal customer to this brand for years, I was really surprised to find that the UK flagship store is designed with such bad taste and inconsistent style. The music is so loud it badly affects the customer experience. When the shop assistants talk to me (and they constantly do which is again not their brand ethos) I have to literally shout back. When I told the manager the music is unnecessary loud, he actually didn’t seem to want to respond nor do anything. That is my last visit to Club Monaco, globally.

Thanks for that report Nancy. I shall strike this off my shopping destination list as well. But then my rustic-formal style doesn’t sit well with their ethos either so they won’t be dropping a dollar on my account.

lizbie says:
28 December 2014

Truly appalling loud ‘music’ in Sainsburys in Epsom yesterday – and not ‘Christmas music’ but Katy Perry screeching ‘Baybee yur a FYERRWERK’ five thousand times. We had been about to do our New Year’s Eve + party shop – about £400 – but left after one aisle as we could not stand the racket. We told one of the check-out girls who said ‘Ooh, I know’ and promised to pass it on. We then went & did our shop in Waitrose. Wonder how many times this has happened recently, and what effect it has on the stores’ market share?

This happened to me in a Sainsbury store some years ago, when I gave up and went an extra five miles to Waitrose. The managers there were delighted to hear about my miserable experience in Sainsbury’s.

David Andrew says:
29 December 2014

Our local Sainsbury,s in Ayrshire also plays piped noise.

A Scotsman in full Highland dress plays his pipes outside M&S in Norwich on high days and holidays and a wondrous sound it is – attracting an appreciative audience who happily pitch their pennies in his pouch. Once during a pause in his puffing and pumping I invited him to come inside and drown out [or drone out] the cacophony within. He advised me that they can’t touch him for it on the street but would have him marched of the premises if he dared to enter the store and release the merest whisper of wind through his instrument. So he stood on the street and delighted the gathering throng.

I think I could make an exception for live piped music. 🙂

We had a very similar experience in our local Sainsbury’s yesterday morning, lizbie. The music was loud disco-type, not Christmas music at all. My husband asked if they could turn it down. If they did, it didn’t seem to make much difference. Like you, we left without completing our shop. I did go to the online comment site they provide on their till receipt and actually ticked the box where they ask if you would like someone to contact you. Will see what happens. Please complain to Sainsbury’s if you have had a similar experience with their “Christmas” music. Fortunately, they don’t seem to play background music during the year.

Adrian Rudge says:
29 December 2014

When I complained to Sainsburys head office, they said the music was only till Xmas eve so when it continued to be played after Xmas the branch told me they had no control over it as it was put out centrally and they could only alter the volume. It is due to end on New Years Day. They claim to take notice of views expressed on the tellsainsburys website so I urge everyone to make their views known.

the quiet majority says:
30 December 2014

Shops and catering establishments don’t do research into the effects of playing music and they don’t gove hoot either. The only reason they play music is to entertain the staff. Who cares if a customers walk out so long as the staff is happy. Their view is that if they have to stand there and serve people (what a pain, they think), they want at least some mild entertainment.
There’s nothing wrong in standing up for yourself and tell them to turn the noise down.

I was driven out of Sainsbury’s again this morning by the loud music. Have put a comment on their Facebook page…

We got back from Xmas away and had to buy some basics for the week. Sainsbury’s is under a mile away and all other shops are 4+ miles away, so after an overnight flight and drive home we went to Sainsburys. The Music was so loud that we could not converse about our shopping and the till operator could not hear us, and we could not hear her. The volume showed at a constant 100+ decibels on my phone’s sound meter (which is just an app, so may not be that accurate). We went to customer services to complain but there was one member of staff and a queue of 10 people, so we did not complain.
However, we wont be using Sainsburys again, apart from exceptional circumstances.
We live in a town where 65%+ of the population is retired (… and I am NOT retired) so loud pop music is not being played for the benefit of the majority of the customers. When the staff have to point at the till to show you the amount to pay because they cannot shout over the music, someone has got something wrong. Anyone who wishes to shop with music has the option of listening to an mp3 player or phone, and they get to choose music they like. If the music is being played for the benefit of the staff it should not be inflicted on the customers.
Perhaps shops who play music should have to display a sign, showing the genre and volume in decibels, so that shoppers can make an informed choice before going in – (like the warning about flashing images on TV)?

We live on the edge of a town where a very high percentage of the population is under 25 but neither of the Sainsbury or Tesco superstores feel it necessary to play music during most of the year [they only jolly it up at Christmas time but I am fearful it will not stop now]. I have moaned previously about Tesco’s awful tracks but Sainsbury’s haven’t been too bad [relatively]. I like your idea of a sign at the entrance [so long as it doesn’t come with flashing disco lights] and think they could add value by displaying the name of the artist and title of the song to provide a preview of the disc plus have a DJ to to do a little voice-over as each screech segues into the next; I mean, if you’re going to do this ‘background music’ thing, then at least do it properly and give credit where it’s due. Or they could print it on the till receipt : “Today you heard Hubert Emroyd and the Emroyds with their version of . . . “.

“plus have a DJ to to do a little voice-over”

Haha, you have just reminded me of a shop we have in Leeds.Topshop or Topman (not sure), but they have a DJ in store 2 days a week (Friday & Saturday). It was meant to be only for a few weeks when the shop opened (as it was a big thing). But they have kept the lad on.

I don’t shop there as it’s far too “cool” for me, but it always seems busy.

chris says:
30 December 2014

well as a worker I enjoying having music playing it makes the day go that bit faster and improves the moral so much working in silence is boring shopping in silence is boring more shops I feel should be playing a mix of music in its shops.

Thank you for saying that chris. You are now the 3rd staff member to say they enjoy it 🙂

Melanie says:
30 December 2014

What is “boring” to you is bliss to others, and the noise you enjoy is torture to many. May I remind you, also, that shops do not exist to pander to the wants of their staff – they are supposed to be pleasing their customers!

chris says:
30 December 2014

I have worked in a fair few shops some in silences some with unsigned music and a few with proper music. the places with no music a few customers said they wished the shop had some music playing and all the workers wanted some sort of music as it could get very boring. in the shop playing unsigned some people hated it and some liked it because they had something to listen to and in the shops playing proper music all the people where happy the team sprit was good and few customers said the play list was very good and that’s why sainsburys started playing music, they did a survey and 60percent of workers/customers wanted some sort of music in the shops that’s why they have been trilling it for last 3 Christmas and its proven very popular.

Sally says:
30 December 2014

Chris, have you any idea how older people hear this music? They hear it louder than you do! It is actually painful to them, especially if they wear hearing aids. Perhaps you think that this sector of society can be ignored, but one third of the population now is over the age of 50. If you are working in the retail sector you cannot ignore this population demographic – they are helping to pay your wages!

Who did the “survey”, when and where is it published? I find it hard to believe that 60% customers and workers actively want loud music in shops. Many shop assistants I have spoken to hate it as much as I do!

chris says:
30 December 2014

it was 5 years ago that’s why the Christmas music started on trial for 1 month a year and longer this year to see will it affect sales if they get many complaints and if people like it

lizbie says:
31 December 2014

Proven very popular? With whom?

When is Which? going to act on all the feedback over the last few months? I emailed Which? to ask them. No reply. I wrote to them and got the rreply that the Reseach Team is “continually monitoring and investigating further”! Disappointing and the sort of bland reply you’d get from any multinational company! Come on Which? Tell us what your plan is and how you are going to use this data to help deal with the menace of muzak!

After a long correspondance with M and S head office, they finally agreed to ask the M and S in Nottingham to reduce the volume of the music. Worked for a while but today (for the sales?) the volume was deafening again. Couldn’t wait to get out of the place!

On a positive note, one of the Costas in Nottingham in the town centre has an large upstairs seating area which does not have music playing! Wonderful!

susan says:
30 December 2014

I come from a retail background in jobs that have and have not had music in the store, and the difference i have seen in this is great, the shop with the music seemed to have a more positive vibe and happier workers who seemed to enjoy working there and the cumsomers seemed to be more at ease shopping even if they have to wait in the ques for a while, whereas in the shop with no music it was the complete opposite and is not a good experience to work or shop in

How do you explain the success of shops that don’t play music, Susan? John Lewis, Waitrose, Primark, Lidl, W H Smith? Wetherspoons planning to open 200 new outlets over the next five years, bucking the trend in a sector where many businesses are closing down?

susan says:
30 December 2014

in my area all them shops do just not primark they play there own music or a local radio station so they do seem to play music in some shops not all like co op do.

lizbie says:
31 December 2014

?

Chris says:
31 December 2014

Have much enjoyed the posts coming in and agree with so much of it. Have kept an eye on Facebook too. The reason we are not given details of the so-called research must be that it either doesn’t exist or is not unbiased. Questions about hearing loops, how many stores have them, are they working, fall on deaf ears (!). Reluctantly in local town centre, went into Waterstone’s to see if they still have music. To be fair I was well into the store before it was audible over the much louder higher pitched music outside. But then I heard it, the sort of aimless jazz that I would never listen to voluntarily. Went home and ordered on Amazon, to the gentle burbling of Radio 4.

Chris, many Waterstones do not have piped musak now. Actually, it’s left to the individual store manager, but the Waterstones MD does not, in fact, like it. So, there at least, the music question is not an important ‘sales’ or ‘enhanced shopping experience’ factor. Likewise of course Waitrose, W H Smith, Wetherspoons etc. Unfortunately this is not the case with many large organisations and having musak is an edict from the top.
Much of the musak problem I believe is concerned with (1) the loudness of the music; (2) the – mostly – unvarying, undiscerning, type of music (except perhaps in the weeks before Christmas for some of the shops); (3) the fact that it’s hardly possible to escape musak these days wherever you are. And many people, like many of us in these conversations, do want to escape it because it is inflicted upon them and not freely chosen.
Any independent survey would very likely show a substantial percentage who want it and the same for those who don’t – and a lot who don’t care one way or another. Many people have generally got used to not appreciating quietness. Silence bothers them somehow. There has to be a background if you like. It’s a bit similar to the modern day problem of the diminishing ‘attention span’ in many areas. The only thing we can do is find places that don’t have piped musak where possible – and continue to challenge the usual ‘culprits’ when we can.

Chris says:
31 December 2014

I should have explained that knew about Waterstone’s MD’s attitude from this conversation. Will I follow up with the local manager? In theory I will, in practice I am running out of steam.

Chris, when we complained to James Daunt, CEO of Waterstones, he told us that he didn’t like piped music himself. However, he preferred to leave the decision as to whether or not to play it up to the individual store managers. He predicted that it would be more likely to cease in the large city centre stores, such as we have in Edinburgh Princes Street and Edinburgh George Street (which has happened) but would be less likely to happen when the branch was located in a shopping mall, where shoppers would expect to hear piped music. I disagree with this – I should have thought that many shoppers would welcome one muzac-free shop when every other part of the mall is playing music – but maybe I am wrong. It sounds as if the Waterstones branch you visited might have been located in a mall. If so, it might well be worth e-mailing James Daunt and mentioning the branch. He does reply. Please don’t run out of steam, Chris!

Yes, I think you are right, Dorothy. There are 45 Waterstones within easy travelling from me; four of them do not have musak now and the fifth which does is actually in a shopping mall. Ironically it’s the very place which doesn’t need it anyway as there is constant musak – always the same type of course – throughout the shopping mall itself (the Merry Hill Shopping Centre in the West Midlands). A further irony is that when, as is often, the Mall is busy with lots of people milling about, the natural sound from the people’s talking etc. means that the musak is very much in the background, yet still adds to the general noise and makes the environment pretty awful.

Sorry – a slip of the finger – I mean 5 Waterstones of course.

Chris says:
31 December 2014

Re Waterstone’s, the one I visited is in the Telford shopping centre which is a mall. Almost all shops have music, and the department stores the music changes as you move from one department to another. Can only think of W H Smith and Primark which are quiet.

For those of you who don’t subscribe to Facebook, I have had a response to my post to Sainsbury’s. This is what I wrote:
“I have been driven out of Sainsbury’s twice within the past week without completing my shop because of the loud “disco-type” music. I accept that Sainsbury’s plays music at Christmas and I wouldn’t normally complain but this was so loud that I couldn’t concentrate on my shopping. Older people actually hear the lower registers more loudly than younger people so music with a loud beat can be quite painful, especially for people who wear hearing aids. Looking forward to a more peaceful New Year, Sainsbury’s!”
and this is their reply:
Hi Dorothy. I can see why this would be frustrating. It’s something we’ll certainly be able to highlight with the store manager for his consideration. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Lynne

lizbie says:
31 December 2014

I had something similar in response to my complaint; they would pass it on to the store manager for his consideration. One of our neighbours works at the store & she told us that she can’t stand the “music” – “It’s not really the music itself, it’s just that it’s so loud I can’t hear when people ask me things.” She’s a pretty feisty lady & did tell the manager what she felt, but the response was along the lines of “the music is there to provide a relaxing shopping experience.”

Earlier on in this conversation someone said that she thought the only way we are going to get anywhere is by emphasising the disability aspect. I am beginning to think this is the only way, too. The way these managers trot out phrases, such as “the music is there to provide a relaxing shopping experience”; it “enhances the shopping experience”, etc., the more obvious it is that they have been completely brainwashed by propaganda from the music industry. I know lots of older people don’t like emphasising the age aspect or loss of hearing but it is a fact that many of us hear the lower beats very loudly because of the aging ear. This is why many of us describe the music as “thudding”.
It isn’t just people with hearing problems who are extra sensitive to background music but also people with high blood pressure; people who suffer from ME; people on the autistic spectrum; and people who suffer from fibromyalgia, misaphonia and Menieres disease. I’ve also been told that stroke victims can be affected. Perhaps when we complain in future, if we suffer from any of these problems, we should mention them.
As David Andrew said earlier “There is a lot of misunderstanding just how deeply annoying it is to those of us who cant handle it.” I honestly don’t think the people who decide to play this music have any idea as to the effect it can have.

You are so right. The store managers have been brainwashed – saturated by sound that seeps remorselessly into their cranial cavities.

AndyB says:
31 December 2014

There have been several mentions about carrying out surveys, but comments about bias and age of surveys have been prevalent. Which? does surveys all the time… Cannot Which? put together a survey to (hopefully) canvas opinion from a larger audience than is participating in this conversation?

My candidates for most annoying music are Debenhams, Homebase, Wickes and Sainsburys. Sainsburys have only just climbed on to my select list but there does seem to be a prospect that they will fall off if, as has been suggested, they stop playing seasonal music once New Year has passed.

I think this Conversation speaks volumes on its own. Just for the record, 179 people have contributed 826 comments at this point. Overwhelmingly, and almost unanimously, they are opposed to it. I am reminded of the beauty product adverts where it is sometimes claimed that “83% of 129 agreed”. Well this tops that by an unbeatable margin.

AndyB says:
31 December 2014

John,
The advantage of Which? undertaking a fully fledged survey is that it allows the information to be collated, to put numbers against a number of categories, be this by age, by whether you work in a shop, are a shopper, etc. If a survey could capture opinions from (say) several thousand respondents it has much greater chance of gaining momentum. But of course a survey may not come out with such a polarised view as is seen from the 179 contributors to this conversation, but perhaps it will? This conversation shows there are strongly held views but it would be very hard, if not impossible, to collate numerical information from the (now) 841 posts. But as there are only 179 voices being heard this might be worse than your beauty product example where very possibly the huge majority of 129 were of one sex so to be on a par should we not have 260 voices?

I agree with you Andy, but at the moment there are no indications that Which? is going to run a survey so the campaigners could use this Conversation as evidence – it’s probably as good as the ‘justification’ trotted out by the retailers to support their dubious ‘commercial’ decisions. I prefer the approach of looking at the harmful impacts on people of music played in shops, not whether the population might or might not like it.

AndyB says:
4 January 2015

I was pleased to find that Sainsbury’s was music-free on 2nd Jan so the comment posted by another contributor that Sainsbury’s had advised them that piped music would only last until New Year has been honoured.

There isn’t a B&Q near me but yesterday I went to one the first time in a couple of years. There were two things which I noticed.
1. There were two completely different sets of music playing at the same time, one was store-wide the other covered about 25% of the store so if you were in the latter area it was noise for noise sake. Simply annoying.
2. There were several announcements but I was genuinely surprised how inaudible these were – simply the worst examples of a tannoy announcement system I have ever heard. I think a couple might have been seeking to promote something but I have no idea what. This says nothing for the quality of the installed system so it should clearly be turned off for good.

I also visited Wickes. Their system still warrants its place in my worst offender’s list. There was much more activity in the store than when I was last there and this helped to mask the piped music (a bit) but there’s no proper escape. The Wickes system is a piercing sound which is very hard to block out. It is probably very good for tannoy announcements (but there weren’t any while I was there) so it should be used for this purpose alone and ditch the music.

I don’t think Wickes and B&Q give a toot for the feelings of customers like us who occasionally go there for DIY stuff for the want of anywhere else. Wickes seems to be especially bloke-ish and trade-oriented and their PA systems mimic the crummy trannies favoured by the self-employed builder boys who get their gear there. No disrespect to them – many of them are highy intelligent and sensible people who probably hate the dreadful din as much as we do and are sick of Wickes treating us all like blockheads. B&Q is my personal bête noire and I can only assume that the staff and their regular customers have specially tuned hearing that can decypher the jangled jingles that reverberate off the tin roof and make the floodlights vibrate.

Perhaps a compromise would be for shops that insist on music to play it every other day (not Saturdays) and have a sign up advertising their noise-free days. I know some will complain they can only shop on certain days but clearly we cannot please everyone. I’m only trying to mediate!

I am still amazed at how this conversation eclipses so many others with what I had imagined were far more important issues.
😮

lizbie says:
31 December 2014

I suggested this to M&S – I thought that “Quiet Sundays” would be a good idea – that’s our shopping day & I felt that just one no-muzak day would be much appreciated by many. M&S replied that it was not possible, as if it was played it had to be every day & they could not just have it on 6 days. I asked why & they said that was just the way it was, they were obliged to play it every day. One can only assume they have a contract with the manufacturers of the noise? I tried to push it a bit further, but it ended with “Our customers, on balance, want music, and they want it every day.” Even the speaker did not sound convinced.

Hear Hear.

I should add I agree with Malcolm’s last comment.

Sally says:
31 December 2014

I think most of us commenting on this conversation accept that there are far more important problems going on in the world, Malcolm. Sadly, there is little we can do about most of them. But annoying music in shops is something that affects many of us in our everyday lives every single day. We should be able to do something about this. The non-stop background music in shops has ruined the pleasure in shopping for many of us. And what is so frustrating is that we know that the music industry is promoting inaccurate research and that businesses are believing this propaganda. Perhaps that is why this topic has stirred up such a reaction.

I was in a very large Marks & Spencer yesterday where all the departments are on one floor and I could wait to leave there, due to the noise of people in such an open area. They were not playing music of any genre but I wished they were as it would have been a much more pleasant experience, If I had to work in a supermarket for 8 – 10 hours a day I too would welcome music being played.

Doesn’t work like that in our Marks & Spencer, Figgerty. If music is playing everyone talks more loudly. It is just another layer of noise. You can’t even hear the music, just a thudding sound. I like the sound of people talking and laughing. Far preferable to someone else’s choice of music.

You could not distinguish any words or laughter just a din or hubbub of noise. It may have been because of the size of the place and the openness. I certainly would not have liked to work in such conditions.